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Dietary supplements and cancer


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Changing Paradigms


IT has long been a debate. Do dietary supplements help cancer patients? Could they affect treatment, negatively or positively? Would doctors recommend them? Should doctors condemn them and discourage the usage amongst patients? Can we deny cancer patients who are fighting for their lives any hope that supplements might provide? Do supplements actually work? Even if they don’t, perhaps they have a powerful placebo effect?

Despite mainstream medicine’s general objection to the use of supplements amongst cancer patients, the situation on the ground is quite the opposite.

European study

In the first Europe-wide study of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), researchers found that the use varied from 15% of cancer patients in Greece to a high of nearly three quarters of patients in Italy.

It was found that CAM users tended to be female, younger and more highly educated and that pancreatic, liver, bone and brain cancer patients (those with poor long-term survival) tended to use CAM more than other patients. Treatment tended to be as short as one month and as long as 18 years with an average of 27 months.

Most patients used CAM for the following reasons:

1) Increase body’s ability to fight the disease (50%)

2) Improve wellbeing (40%)

3) Emotional wellbeing (35%)

They learnt about CAM from friends (56%), family (29%) or the media (28%) while 18% heard it from their physician. Less than 10% got it from the internet.

Overall, patients tended to be satisfied and felt the particular therapy effective, with only 3% saying it was useless.

However, a more definitive answer may be on hand. A new Mayo Clinic study has found that lung cancer patients who take vitamin supplements experience both improved survival and quality of life.

Mayo Clinic study

A study published in the July 2005 issue of the journal Lung Cancer (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/01695002) found that men and women with non-small cell lung cancer who took vitamin and mineral supplements following their diagnosis experienced double the average survival time and better quality of life compared to those who did not use supplements.

This particular study followed 1,129 individuals with non-small cell lung cancer who were a part of the Mayo Clinic lung cancer group. Participants completed questionnaires concerning vitamin and mineral supplement use, cancer treatment and progression, and quality of life six months after diagnosis, at one year, and yearly thereafter through the end of 2002.

The patients’ treatments were not influenced by participation in the study, and consisted of surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and/or supportive care based on tumour stage, co-existing conditions and health status.

Sixty-three percent of the participants reported using vitamin/mineral supplements during the follow-up period. Median survival in the supplement group was 4.3 years compared to two years among those who were non-users.

After adjustment for a number of factors, the relative risk of dying experienced by supplement users over the course of the study was calculated to be 26% lower than that of those who did not use supplements. Quality of life was also reported as greater among those who used supplements than those who did not.

Need more study

The authors write that, to their knowledge, the question: “Are these supplements helping or hurting cancer patients?” had never been answered in a large group of cancer patients, particularly among those with non-small cell lung cancer.

They conclude: “The present study provides sufficiently compelling data to invite further investigation of vitamins/mineral supplements as adjunctive therapy for cancer patients in a clinical trial setting and to underscore the need for patients to participate in current ongoing trials.”

What to do

However, this should not be a blank cheque to rush out there to grab the latest (and most expensive supplements). Here are a few things that you should observe:

1) Talk to your doctor and pharmacist.

While the medical profession still scoffs at supplements, many doctors, especially those associated with patients suffering from serious illness like cancer, tend to be more open. It is also important that the doctor and pharmacist are made aware of the supplements that you may be taking so that they may be alerted about possible interaction and side effects.

2) Talk to qualified alternative caregivers.

There are good nutritionists, herbalists and alternative caregivers who you can talk to. Some of them even have medical training and can even talk to your doctors.

3) Talk to family and friends.

These are your best resource for time, love and more information, especially if you need unbiased opinions.

4) Visit good and credible websites on cancer that do not sell products or related therapies.

5) Take supplements with a scientific basis.

Do not just rush out there to grab the most expensive supplement. Take time to read and understand what you are paying for and what you are going to take.

6) Buy only from approved and professional outlets.

As far as possible, avoid buying from people who have no professional and background training. If you have cancer and you are being treated for it, it is a serious matter.

7) Avoid unregistered and unapproved supplements.

Never dabble with untested stuff that might do more harm than good.


1. Annals of Oncology, 3rd February 2005

2. Lung Cancer Journal, July 2005

Rajen M. is a pharmacist with a doctorate in holistic medicine. Write to him at starhealth@thestar.com.my. The views expressed are those of the writer and readers are advised to always consult expert advice before undertaking any changes to their lifestyles. The views and opinions expressed in this column are solely that of the author’s. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.

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